The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In the early period of his poetic career, Stéphane Mallarmé derived much of his use of imagery from the example of Charles Baudelaire’s verse. His homage to Baudelaire, however, written near the end of Mallarmé’s life, while still retaining the sonnet form and a few images that may have been found in the earlier style, attains a complexity of expression much beyond it.

The traditional Petrarchan sonnet is part of a loosely related sequence of poems honoring, also, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Verlaine, and Richard Wagner. Each sonnet uses the image of a tombstone or other object that, along with the sonnet itself, will form an enduring monument to the man it honors.

In “The Tomb of Charles Baudelaire,” the initial image is not that of the tomb but of the dead poet himself. The “buried temple” must be that of Baudelaire’s body, which, though already buried in the Montparnasse cemetery, still has mud and rubies issuing from its mouth, a reference to both the filth and the beauty contained in Baudelaire’s poetic utterances. The analogy with the “idol Anubis” further underlines the theme of burial in that the Egyptian jackal-god was said to preside over tombs.

In the second quatrain, the imagery changes entirely. Multiple details suggest the presence of a prostitute in the street, although the woman is never specifically named in the poem. This technique of suggestion, common in Mallarmé’s work, evokes the woman...

(The entire section is 542 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

While in this later poem Mallarmé’s structures are no longer derived from Charles Baudelaire, many of the themes and images link him to the poet of Les Fleurs du mal (1857; Flowers of Evil, 1931). From the initial reference to “mud and rubies,” Mallarmé recalls both the moral dualism of Baudelaire’s work, in which beauty could be seen as derived from what was evil or unbeautiful, and the images of gemstones Baudelaire used in many of his poems.

The section of the poem closest to Baudelaire, however, is probably the second quatrain, with its motif of the prostitute. Baudelaire, who spent much of his life among the desperately poor people of Paris who would turn to prostitution or any other means for survival, frequently wrote with great compassion of their lives. Thus it seems appropriate that the only person near his tomb is a prostitute. She is there to ply her trade in an out-of-the-way place, and she is united by a spiritual link with the poet.

In addition, the prostitute echoes Baudelaire’s portrayal of women. The moral dualism of Flowers of Evil involves the poet’s quest for a visionary ideal. The woman, in whose eyes he believes at first he sees a reflection of heavenly light, becomes, as he soon realizes, a distraction and an impediment to his quest. Thus, the prostitute in Mallarmé’s poem, “the one who will wipe away the shames he has undergone,” corresponds to the woman who, for a time,...

(The entire section is 511 words.)